Ashes and Curtains

By Justin Rossow

“Dust you are and to dust you will return.” Those words, spoken to Adam in Genesis 3:19, come right after the Fall. They are words of judgment; words of banishment; words of mortality. We speak them as part of the Internment Service at the graveside.

The coffin is lowered into the grave or placed in its resting place.
Earth may be cast on the coffin as the pastors says:

We now commit his/her body to the ground/the deep/its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust …

“Dust you are and to dust you will return.” On the heels of those words, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. Having eaten from the one forbidden tree, they are now removed from the Tree of Life, lest they should live forever in their sin.

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 

So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

(Genesis 3:22-24, NIV)

Much later, the rebellious descendants of rebellious parents find themselves wandering in the wilderness. God chooses to go with these sinful people; yet even then, the separation is evident.

God’s very presence dwells in, with, and under the glory cloud that fills the Tabernacle. The Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place) becomes the location where heaven meets earth, where God promises to be. But a curtain 60 feet tall and 4 inches thick divides the presence of a holy God from these sinful human beings.

Just as cherubim guarded the way back into Eden, the curtain depicts an angelic, heavenly host; a Keep Out sign for all who still have the stain of sin, the reek of rebellion. Banishment from God’s presence is woven into the very fabric of the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple. God comes to be present, and we still are on the outside, looking in.

When the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14), the Almighty God came veiled in human form. Jesus is the place where heaven meets earth; where the eternal meets the mortal; where God again dwells among us.

In a sense, Jesus pulled back the curtain; God was again present with people, face to face. Creation was restored. Sickness, healed. Even death was undone.

One of my favorite, and most neglected, resurrection stories in the New Testament comes in Matthew 27:51-53. When the crucified Jesus cries out in a loud voice and gives up his spirit, Matthew records:

The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.(Matthew 27:51b-53, NIV)

It’s like the grave has started to leak. Death can’t hold all the captives in. The original curse from the original Garden has begun to come unraveled. The separation is tearing at the seams. Indeed, with the death of Jesus, God the Father tears up the Keep Out sign that blocked the way to relationship with God.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
(Matthew 27:51a, NIV)

That violent tearing counts as an act of judgment on us human beings who always misuse the ways God chooses to come to us. The ripping apart of the cosmic scene on that curtain combined with the earthquake that shook the unshakeable bedrock of the mountain takes us back to Isaiah 6, where the prophet sees the angelic host, not embroidered in gold, but soaring back and forth and shouting to make the Temple shake: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of heavenly armies!”

Like Isaiah, we respond to God’s judgment on everything we think is solid and stable in our lives with a “Woe is me! I am undone! For I am a person of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6:5).

But lean in a little farther. The tearing of the Temple curtain is an act of judgment; but it is also more.

The same Isaiah who felt the Temple mountain shake will later promise:

[The LORD] will swallow up on this mountain
    the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
    and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the LORD has spoken.
(Isaiah 25:7-8, ESV)

The tearing of the Temple curtain is also the first rip in the shroud of death that veils all humanity. With that first gash, the grave starts to leak. Three short days later, the earth will shake again (Matthew 28:2), and another grave—a garden tomb, locked with an impossibly large stone, guarded by soldiers, and sealed tight—will tear open, and Jesus will step into resurrection life, the firstfruits of the New Creation.

Jesus has granted us access to the Father; through the rending of his body, we can already now enter into the very presence of the Almighty God.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body … let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings.
(Hebrews 10:19-20, 22, NIV)

This Ash Wednesday, you may join in the ancient practice of receiving ashes on your forehead in the sign of a cross. If you do, you may well hear the words of the curse, the words we still use at the internment of bodies that belong to people we love: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

But the sign of the cross also points you forward. That cross marked the Beginning of the End, just as the resurrection of Jesus marks the Beginning of the New Beginning. Death has been torn asunder. The way to the presence of the Father is restored. Jesus already tabernacles with you.

And yet, we still stand at the gravesides of people we love.

Let me tell you a secret: as long as a single body of someone Jesus loves is still in the grave, his work isn’t yet complete. Jesus loves your body. Jesus died for your body. Your body is going to rise.

That’s why, right after we say, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the Internment liturgy continues:

May God the Father, who created this body;
may God the Son, who by his blood redeemed this body;
may God the Holy Spirit, who by Holy Baptism sanctified this body to be his temple, keep these remains to the day of the resurrection of all flesh.

The cross of Jesus means that God tore up the Keep Out sign. The resurrection of Jesus means you will walk out of your tomb, too; and in the New Garden, the New Paradise, the New Creation, you will dwell in the very presence of God.

There will be no more need for Temple curtains, veiling the presence of a holy God from sinful people. In fact, you won’t need any kind of temple, sanctuary, or church building, for you will live inside a New-Creation-sized Holy of Holies, where with resurrection eyes you will see God face to face.

As you receive your ashes, remember you are dust; as you wash off your ashes, remember you are destined for resurrection.

I was just introduced to a wonderful children’s book that explores this theme in an accessible way:

If you have kids, this blog about Ash removal is really helpful: Ash Wednesday Keepsakes.

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